The Power of Giving Thanks
Getting good at saying “thank you,” and doing so regularly and meaningfully is something every nonprofit must do. This simple act is the key to retaining supporters, and retention is crucial to the financial health of charitable organizations.
In both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors, it typically costs around five times as much to solicit a new “customer” as it does to do business with an existing one. Particularly in the case of fundraising, acquisition costs through direct marketing are high. It typically costs nonprofits two to three times more to recruit a donor than a donor will give in their first donation. This fact alone explains why retention is critical to a nonprofit organization’s revenue. It can take 12 to 18 months before a donor relationship becomes profitable.
Saying thanks is so fundamental that it’s hard to believe that some nonprofits neglect to do so. A 2017 study called “The National Awareness, Attitudes and Usage Study” revealed what happens when the fundamentals are overlooked. Although this survey is five years old, it’s equally relevant today.
The survey was sent to 98,000 donors who had given between $250 and $2,500 annually, for multiple years, to a single nonprofit, primarily cultural institutions, like museums, symphony orchestras, etc. However, these donors had stopped giving for more than 24 months; in other words, they had become “lapsed donors.” When asked why they had stopped giving, the reasons they gave were revealing.
The most common reason for becoming lapsed was they weren’t “acknowledged/thanked for previous gift.” The second most cited reason was they weren’t “asked to donate again.” Note that the least common reason mentioned was “solicitation overreach,” meaning they had been asked too often. How many times have you sat in a comms meeting with people wringing their hands about reaching out to supporters too often?
Social psychologists have studied the power of gratitude extensively. For example, a 2010 study by psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania and the Harvard Business School quantified just how powerful saying “thanks” really is.
In the study, people were asked to help a student improve a job application letter. For half of the subjects in the study, the students wrote back simply to let the person know that they'd received the feedback. For the other half, they responded, "Thank you so much! I am really grateful." Then, three days later, the same students asked for help again.
The difference that a “thank-you” made was dramatic. When the non-thanking group of students asked for more help, only 32% received help again. When the thanking students asked, 66% received a second response. People were more than twice as likely to help someone who'd thanked them than someone who hadn't.
Why did this happen? The authors describe how thanking people makes them feel more "socially valued." They feel more connected to other people and their community. And connection to community is very powerful, very rewarding.
Expressing gratitude is an example of the “Would I say it to my sister?” test I recommend applying to nonprofit communications (Don’t bother Googling that — I made it up). Would I ask my sister to pay a registration fee to attend our family reunion? No. Would I give my sister a $25 Target gift card as thanks for helping me clean out my garage? Nope. Would I tell her she’s a caring, compassionate person who makes life better for those around her every day? Yes — and I’d repeat it often.
At the end of the day, the feeling of community that people experience through involvement in a nonprofit’s mission is what makes them come back for more. And gratitude is a key component of the social cocktail people can’t get enough of.
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising” and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much-sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.